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Water goals remain elusive

Severe drought and a booming population have combined to raise water usage in the county when conservation is needed.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001


TAMPA -- On television and in the newspapers, the people in charge of water conservation in the Tampa Bay area have pleaded with the public to cut back and save every drop possible.

Yet the amount of water used in unincorporated Hillsborough County in 2000 rose 3 percent compared with the previous year, a disappointment to water officials faced with a severe drought.

To stem usage in 2000, officials added to public education and rebate programs for water-saving appliances by imposing once-a-week watering restrictions. They also beefed up enforcement, writing 2,004 citations compared with 821 the previous year.

Still, the average residential customer used 118 gallons per day last year, Water Department spokesman John Fischer said, compared with 105 gallons five years ago.

The county would like its residential customers to average 110 gallons per day, but achieving that goal remains elusive.

"We're dealing with a number of things," county water conservation manager Norm Davis said. "Population growth. The drought itself is causing people to water when they wouldn't water."

He said a percentage of the population doesn't seem to heed the importance of conserving. "Getting the message to them is difficult," he said.

Rainfall in the area is 25 inches below the annual average, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, threatening the well fields that provide fresh water to homes and businesses in unincorporated Hillsborough.

The Hillsborough River has also dropped to dangerous levels, threatening the main source of fresh water to customers in the city of Tampa, where consumption dropped slightly in 2000 compared with 1999.

Officials say the explosion of subdivisions makes it difficult to reduce consumption under the current rules. Heavily landscaped developments reinforce bad habits by putting an emphasis on lush grass and thirsty vegetation.

Conservation officials say lawns account for more water consumption than any other single outdoor usage. Combined with inefficient irrigation systems, nothing wastes as much water as lawn watering, they say.

Which is why county commissioners have begun debating passage of a landscape ordinance requiring more drought-resistant plants and flowers, along with more efficient irrigation systems.

Talk of a moratorium on new development was dropped last month when commissioners feared it would become so mired in controversy it would divert attention from other conservation ideas.

Instead, commissioners will study ways to bolster their review of developments and give water availability greater consideration when deciding which projects should move ahead.

Meanwhile, the county sent notices to about 18,000 customers who consumed 25 percent more water during a seven-month period last year compared with 1999. Soon, another 100,000 letters will be sent, some complimentary for conserving and others offering tips on reducing usage.

To the surprise of Water Department officials, people have responded defensively.

"One person went to the trouble of including two pictures of their brown lawn to show they had not been watering," Fischer said.

Many said there were valid reasons for the increase.

The Suarez family wrote to say water use went up when three relatives moved in with them in August.

"We are doing our best to keep our consumption low," Joanna Suarez said recently. "When we open the faucet we don't open it full. In the toilet, we use a small tank provided by the county. The shower . . . we don't open full. We don't have a garden. Another thing we don't do is wash the cars here."

Fischer said the county wanted to get the attention of customers who are using more water. He said he's pleased to hear from customers who say they are trying.

"We've all been screaming conservation," he said. At least "some of these people are doing the right things."

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